Catholic progressives are not the only faithful worried about the dangers posed by some U.S. church leaders turning away from civil engagement in the public square and embracing a confrontational style when it comes to politics. The Obama-Notre Dame commencement controversy – along with the shrill tone of our nation’s bitter abortion culture wars – has provoked self-reflection among those bishops who see prudence and reason as a more effective strategy for winning hearts and minds.
In a rare public airing of criticism from an active bishop, Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan of Santa Fe, New Mexico gave a provocative interview recently with the National Catholic Reporter decrying the combative tactics of a few bishops as counterproductive to getting a fair hearing for Catholic values. He lamented the fact that some church leaders even refuse to talk to politicians or deny them communion based on a single issue. Sheehan also disagreed with his brother bishops who lashed out at the University of Notre Dame for inviting President Obama to give the commencement address. According to the National Catholic Reporter, here’s what Sheehan told his fellow bishops:
I don’t feel so badly about Obama going [to Notre Dame] because he’s our president. I said we’ve gotten more done on the pro-life issue in New Mexico by talking to people that don’t agree with us on everything. We got Governor Richardson to sign off on the abolition of the death penalty for New Mexico, which he was in favor of. We talked to him, and we got him on board and got the support in the legislature. But you know, he’s pro-abortion. So? It doesn’t mean we sit and wait, that we sit on the sides and not talk to him. We’ve done so much more by consultation and by building bridges in those areas. And then to make a big scene about Obama - I think a lot of the enemies of the church are delighted to see all that. And I said that I think we don’t want to isolate ourselves from the rest of America by our strong views on abortion and the other things. We need to be building bridges, not burning them.
While the media highlights the most controversial religious voices – Cardinal James Stafford describing Barack Obama’s election as an “apocalyptic” event surely made irresistible headlines – most Catholic leaders recognize the need for thoughtful dialogue. Pope Benedict XVI’s recent cordial meeting with President Obama at the Vatican offers an example of how the global Catholic Church recognizes politics is the art of the possible rather than a zero-sum game. The Holy Father found common ground between the church’s broad international agenda and many of the president’s priorities: Middle East peace, nuclear deterrence, poverty alleviation, religious freedom, comprehensive immigration reform, and addressing the dire impact of global climate change. Instead of vilifying Obama on the issue of abortion, Pope Benedict gave Obama a signed copy of “Dignitas Personae,” a Vatican document on bioethics. No screaming or spectacle, simply a gracious model of faith and reason at work.
The Catholic Church risks losing credibility in the public square when even a few bishops are perceived to be closely aligned with ideologues pushing narrow agendas. As Archbishop Emeritus of San Francisco John Quinn recently wrote in America magazine: “The condemnation of President Obama and the wider policy shift that represents signal to many thoughtful persons that the bishops have now come down firmly on the Republican side in American politics. . . . The perception of partisanship on the part of the Church is disturbing to many Catholics given the charge of Gaudium et Spes (a seminal document of Vatican II) that the Church must transcend every political structure and cannot sacrifice that transcendence, no matter how important the cause.”
Take the polarization over health care reform. While the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has long promoted universal health care and views it as an essential human right, a few bishops sound like they are reading from right-wing talking points when they warn, as two did recently, about a “government socialization of medical services.” Another bishop wrote that the “Catholic Church does not teach that government should directly provide health care” and warned, “any legislation that undermines the vitality of the private sector is suspect.” This raised some red flags with prominent Catholic theologians and social justice leaders who warned in a statement that these comments only “embolden opponents of reform and distort Church teaching about the essential role government has in serving the common good.”
Catholics in America have journeyed a long way from being a despised immigrant minority in a culture that questioned their commitment to democracy. Today, Catholics are leaders in the influential fields of politics, business and journalism. The Catholic Church is a powerful voice for social justice, peace and human dignity around the world. But the church is also at a defining crossroads. The choice between an embattled fundamentalism that hunkers down against hostile threats from a wider culture and the hope of a vibrant faith engaged in constructive dialogue could well define the future of Catholicism.
John Gehring is Media Director and Senior Writer for Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. This article was first published at BeliefNet.com.